The Difficulties of Translating Tunisian Poet Abu al-Qassim al-Shabbi

Translations of work by Tunisian poet Abu al-Qassim al-Shabbi (أبو القاسم الشابي) continue to make their way around the Internet, mostly as a symbol of hope and change, less so as renewed interest in the poet himself. Many of these translations are repeats of the anonymous Wikipedia version of “To the Tyrants of the World”  or of As’ad Abu Khalil’s rendition of the poem he titles “The Will of Life.” But there have been other attempts as well.

Before we get to them: Arabic poetry, particularly pre-1950s Arabic poetry, is not often translated into English. When it is—with a few exceptions—the translations tend to be less successful than those of Arabic prose.

I suppose many of us have a feeling about why this may be (poetry’s relationship to the particular texture of a language, etc). To this end, I turned up a brief April 2010 discussion of the difficulties translating al-Shabbi by Kuwaiti poet Fatima Al Matar.

But first, the Tunisian author Chikhaoui Imed has posted his translation of “To the Tyrants of the World” on his website. I don’t think the word “prickles” serves him very well, but it is nonetheless interesting to see another go at the poem:

Hey you, despotic tyrant,
Darkness lover and enemy of life,

You scoffed at powerless people’s groans;
And your hands are tainted with their blood.

You embarked on empoisoning the allure of existence
and sowing prickles of grief in its horizons.
You will see! Don’t be deceived by spring time,
Shining sky and morning light

For in the wide horizon lurk darkness fright,
Thunder Rumble and stormy winds.

Woe betide you for flames are underneath ashes.
Who grows prickles reaps wounds.
Have a look there… where you cut off
The people’s heads and the flowers of hope;

You imbibed the heart of the earth with blood
And made it drunk with tears.

The flood, of blood, will wipe you away,
and the flaring gale will eat you up.

Then: It was last spring, over at Write Out Loud, that Kuwaiti poet Fatima Al Matar offered a translation of a quite different poem by al-Shabbi. She titles—or I think mis-titles—the poem “I wish I can live life.” The construction “I wish I can,” at least to me, has a clumsy feel to it.

In any event, the poem:

I wish I can live this life in my solitude and isolation

spending my days in the mountains and the woods

between the pine trees, not having worldly cares that

can shift the self from listening to the soul

I’d await death and life, and I’d attentively listen to

the speech of forever and more

I’d sing with the robins in the woods and listen to

the lapping rivers in the valleys

I’d speak lovingly to the stars and the dawn,

the birds and the river and the calm sunlight

A life lived for beauty and art, away from my

people and my country, not weary with the cares of people,

for they live a life of the still lifeless objects

and to live with what lays within me whether

sorrow or novel joy, away from the city and its people away

from the jargon of their societies, for they only descend from lies,

naivety, and common nonsense

where is this life for which I long?

where I can hear the lands barmaid singing and lapping,

and the echoes of the heart and the song of the singer

and the sounds and rustling of tree branches in their shade

and the scent of flowers, this is the life I praise,

I call for its glory and call for its brilliance

I can’t make the formatting come out properly for the Arabic, so please go look at it here.

After the poem, Al Matar discusses what she sees as key differences between Arabic- and English-language poetic traditions. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really talk about the whys or wherefores of her own choices. She highlights formatting differences between her poem and al-Shabbi’s, but doesn’t delve into essential ways in which layout changes the poem’s rhythm and appearance on the page, and thus the poem’s relationship to itself and its reader.

Al Matar explains that the original poem has a rhyme scheme, but not whether she attempted this in the English, or to what extent she tried to echo the poem’s internal rhythms (and what happened as she did so).

The issue of translating Arabic poetry into English deserves a great deal more attention. Or, more likely, this discussion is proceeding vigorously apace, I just haven’t stumbled upon it.

More on al-Shabbi and translating Arabic poetry into English:

  • An old moment from the 2009 Dubai International Festival: One Thousand Poets, One Language. According to the Saudi Gazette: “Moving on a wheelchair, Al-Shabbi’s son Muhammad attended the festival. ‘I wanted to recall the enthralling moments I used to feel when my father recited poems.'”
  • If you haven’t seen Adab.Com and you have an interest in Arabic poetry (in English), well.

For these reasons and many more, discussing the “aesthetic” quality of the works in the anthology is highly problematic. For one, the poems, as Marc Falkoff writes in his introduction, were translated not by literary translators but by “linguists with secret-level security clearances” (although Miller did translate one of the poems). And while one cannot necessarily assume that a literary translator would have done a better job, we can at least say, without controversy, that the “literary quality” of the translations were not of great concern. (And as critics of literature in translation, we should always be aware of the distance that exists between us and the work at hand. This fact should never be taken for granted.)

We should not, therefore, simply read individual poems in the search for literary quality—even though some are excellent poems—but rather read them with an eye toward achieving an understanding of what poetry can suggest as poetry.

Read more from Fragopolous on poetry, politics, and translation.